Evolutionary diversification is often initiated by adaptive divergence between populations occupying ecologically distinct environments while still exchanging genes. The genetic foundations of this divergence process are largely unknown and are here explored through genome scans in multiple independent lake–stream population pairs of threespine stickleback. We find that across the pairs, overall genomic divergence is associated with the magnitude of divergence in phenotypes known to be under divergent selection. Along this same axis of increasing diversification, genomic divergence becomes increasingly biased towards the centre of chromosomes as opposed to the peripheries. We explain this pattern by within-chromosome variation in the physical extent of hitchhiking, as recombination is greatly reduced in chromosome centres. Correcting for this effect suggests that a great number of genes distributed widely across the genome are involved in the divergence into lake vs. stream habitats. Analyzing additional allopatric population pairs, however, reveals that strong divergence in some genomic regions has been driven by selection unrelated to lake–stream ecology. Our study highlights a major contribution of large-scale variation in recombination rate to generating heterogeneous genomic divergence and indicates that elucidating the genetic basis of adaptive divergence might be more challenging than currently recognized.