The eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada (USA) forms one of the most prominent topographic and geologic features in the Cordillera, yet the timing and nature of fault displacements along it remain relatively poorly known. The central Sierra Nevada range front is an ideal place to determine the structural evolution of the range front because it has abundant dateable Cenozoic volcanic rocks. The Sonora Pass area of the central Sierra Nevada is particularly good for reconstructing the slip history of range-front faults, because it includes unusually widespread and distinctive high-K volcanic rocks (the ca. 11.5–9 Ma Stanislaus Group) that serve as outstanding strain markers. These include the following, from base to top. (1) The Table Mountain Latite (TML) consists of voluminous trachyandesite, trachybasaltic andesite, and basalt lava flows, erupted from fault-controlled fissures in the Sierra Crest graben-vent system. (2) The Eureka Valley Tuff consists of three trachydacite ignimbrite members erupted from the Little Walker caldera. These ignimbrites are interstratified with lava flows that continued to erupt from the Sierra Crest graben-vent system, and include silicic high-K as well as intermediate to mafic high-K lavas. The graben-vent system consists of a single ∼27-km-long, ∼8–10-km-wide approximately north-south graben that is along the modern Sierran crest between Sonora Pass and Ebbetts Pass, with a series of approximately north-south half-grabens on its western margin, and an ∼24-km-wide northeast transfer zone emanating from the northeast boundary of the graben on the modern range front south of Ebbetts Pass. In this paper we focus on the structural evolution of the Sonora Pass segment of the Sierra Nevada range front, which we do not include in the Sierra Crest graben-vent complex because we have found no vents for high-K lava flows here. However, we show that these faults localized the high-K Little Walker caldera.
We demonstrate that the range-front faults at Sonora Pass were active before and during the ca. 11.5–9 Ma high-K volcanism. We show that these faults are dominantly approximately north-south down to the east normal faults, passing northward into a system of approximately northeast-southwest sinistral oblique normal faults that are on the southern end of the ∼24-km-wide northeast transfer zone in the Sierra Crest graben-vent complex. At least half the slip on the north-south normal faults on the Sonora Pass range front occurred before and during eruption of the TML, prior to development of the Little Walker caldera. It has previously been suggested that the range-front faults formed a right-stepping transtensional stepover that controlled the siting of the Little Walker caldera; we support that interpretation by showing that synvolcanic throw on the faults increases southward toward the caldera. The Sonora Pass–Little Walker caldera area is shown here to be very similar in structural style and scale to the transtensional stepover at the Quaternary Long Valley field. Furthermore, the broader structural setting of both volcanic fields is similar, because both are associated with a major approximately northeast-southwest sinistral oblique normal fault zone. This structural style is typical of central Walker Lane belt transtension. Previous models have called for westward encroachment of Basin and Range extension into the Sierra Nevada range front after arc volcanism ceased (ca. 6–3.5 Ma); we show instead that Walker Lane transtension is responsible for the formation of the range front, and that it began by ca. 12 Ma. We conclude that Sierra Nevada range-front faulting at Sonora Pass initiated during high-K arc volcanism, under a Walker Lane transtensional strain regime, and that this controlled the siting of the Little Walker caldera.
- Received 11 March 2013.
- Revision received 7 June 2013.
- Accepted 18 July 2013.
- © Geological Society of America