Basement membranes are sheets of extracellular matrix that separate epithelia from connective tissues and outline muscle fibers and the endothelial lining of blood vessels. A major function of basement membranes is to establish and maintain stable tissue borders, exemplified by frequent vascular breaks and a disrupted pial and retinal surface in mice with mutations or deletions of basement membrane proteins. To directly measure the biomechanical properties of basement membranes, chick and mouse inner limiting membranes were examined by atomic force microscopy. The inner limiting membrane is located at the retinal‐vitreal junction and its weakening due to basement membrane protein mutations leads to inner limiting membrane rupture and the invasion of retinal cells into the vitreous. Transmission electron microscopy and western blotting has shown that the inner limiting membrane has an ultrastructure and a protein composition typical for most other basement membranes and, thus, provides a suitable model for determining their biophysical properties. Atomic force microscopy measurements of native chick basement membranes revealed an increase in thickness from 137 nm at embryonic day 4 to 402 nm at embryonic day 9, several times thicker that previously determined by transmission electron microscopy. The change in basement membrane thickness was accompanied by a large increase in apparent Young's modulus from 0.95 MPa to 3.30 MPa. The apparent Young's modulus of the neonatal and adult mouse retinal basement membranes was in a similar range, with 3.81 MPa versus 4.07 MPa, respectively. These results revealed that native basement membranes are much thicker than previously determined. Their high mechanical strength explains why basement membranes are essential in stabilizing blood vessels, muscle fibers and the pial border of the central nervous system.