Lanthanide-doped glasses and crystals are attractive for laser applications because the metastable energy levels of the trivalent lanthanide ions facilitate the establishment of population inversion and amplified stimulated emission at relatively low pump power1,2,3. At the nanometre scale, lanthanide-doped upconversion nanoparticles (UCNPs) can now be made with precisely controlled phase, dimension and doping level4,5. When excited in the near-infrared, these UCNPs emit stable, bright visible luminescence at a variety of selectable wavelengths6,7,8,9, with single-nanoparticle sensitivity10,11,12,13, which makes them suitable for advanced luminescence microscopy applications. Here we show that UCNPs doped with high concentrations of thulium ions (Tm3+), excited at a wavelength of 980 nanometres, can readily establish a population inversion on their intermediate metastable 3H4 level: the reduced inter-emitter distance at high Tm3+ doping concentration leads to intense cross-relaxation, inducing a photon-avalanche-like effect that rapidly populates the metastable 3H4 level, resulting in population inversion relative to the 3H6 ground level within a single nanoparticle. As a result, illumination by a laser at 808 nanometres, matching the upconversion band of the 3H4 → 3H6 transition, can trigger amplified stimulated emission to discharge the 3H4 intermediate level, so that the upconversion pathway to generate blue luminescence can be optically inhibited. We harness these properties to realize low-power super-resolution stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy and achieve nanometre-scale optical resolution (nanoscopy), imaging single UCNPs; the resolution is 28 nanometres, that is, 1/36th of the wavelength. These engineered nanocrystals offer saturation intensity two orders of magnitude lower than those of fluorescent probes currently employed in stimulated emission depletion microscopy, suggesting a new way of alleviating the square-root law that typically limits the resolution that can be practically achieved by such techniques.