We show here that transtensional rifting along the eastern boundary of the Sierra Nevada microplate (Walker Lane rift) began by ca. 12 Ma in the central Sierra Nevada (USA), within the ancestral Cascades arc, triggering voluminous high-K intermediate volcanism (Stanislaus Group). Flood andesite (i.e., unusually large-volume effusive eruptions of intermediate composition) lavas erupted from fault-controlled fissures within a series of grabens that we refer to as the Sierra Crest graben-vent system. This graben-vent system includes the following.
1. The north-northwest–south-southeast Sierra Crest graben proper consists of a single 28-km-long, 8–10-km-wide full graben that is along the modern Sierra Nevada crest between Sonora Pass and Ebbetts Pass (largely in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness). This contains fissure vents for the high-K intermediate lavas.
2. A series of north-northwest-south-southeast half-grabens on the western margin of the full graben, which progressively disrupted an ancient Nevadaplano paleochannel that contains the type section of Stanislaus Group (Red Peak–Bald Peak area). These Miocene half-grabens are as much as 15 km west of the modern Sierra Nevada crest, and vented high-K lavas from point sources.
3. Series of northeast-southwest grabens define a major transfer zone along the northeast side of the Sierra Crest graben. These extend as much as ∼30 km from the modern range crest down the modern Sierra Nevada range front, in a zone ∼30 km wide, and vented high-K lavas and tuffs of the Stanislaus Group from point sources. Range-front north-south and northeast-southwest faults to the south of that, along the southeast side of the Sierra Crest graben, did not vent volcanic rocks (although they ponded them); those will be described elsewhere.
We present evidence for a dextral component of slip on the north-northwest–south-southeast normal faults, and a sinistral component of slip on the northeast-southwest normal faults. The onset of transtension immediately preceded the high-K volcanism (within the analytical error of 40Ar/39Ar dates), and triggered the deposition of a debris avalanche deposit with a preserved volume of ∼50 km3. The grabens are mainly filled with high-K lava flows, ponded to thicknesses of as much as 400 m; this effusive volcanism culminated in the development of the Little Walker caldera over a relatively small part of the field. Trachydacite outflow ignimbrites from the caldera also became ponded in the larger graben-vent complex, where they interfingered with high-K lavas vented there, and escaped the graben-vent complex on its west margin to flow westward down two paleochannels to the western foothills.
The Sierra Crest graben-vent system is spectacularly well exposed at the perfect structural level for viewing the controls of synvolcanic faults on the siting and styles of feeders, vents, and graben fills under a transtensional strain regime in an arc volcanic field.