The western Nevada volcanic field is the western third of a belt of calderas through Nevada and western Utah. Twenty-three calderas and their caldera-forming tuffs are reasonably well identified in the western Nevada volcanic field, and the presence of at least another 14 areally extensive, apparently voluminous ash-flow tuffs whose sources are unknown suggests a similar number of undiscovered calderas. Eruption and caldera collapse occurred between at least 34.4 and 23.3 Ma and clustered into five ∼0.5–2.7-Ma-long episodes separated by quiescent periods of ∼1.4 Ma. One eruption and caldera collapse occurred at 19.5 Ma. Intermediate to silicic lavas or shallow intrusions commonly preceded caldera-forming eruptions by 1–6 Ma in any specific area. Caldera-related as well as other magmatism migrated from northeast Nevada to the southwest through time, probably resulting from rollback of the formerly shallow-dipping Farallon slab. Calderas are restricted to the area northeast of what was to become the Walker Lane, although intermediate and effusive magmatism continued to migrate to the southwest across the future Walker Lane.
Most ash-flow tuffs in the western Nevada volcanic field are rhyolites, with approximately equal numbers of sparsely porphyritic (≤15% phenocrysts) and abundantly porphyritic (∼20–50% phenocrysts) tuffs. Both sparsely and abundantly porphyritic rhyolites commonly show compositional or petrographic evidence of zoning to trachydacites or dacites. At least four tuffs have volumes greater than 1000 km3, with one possibly as much as ∼3000 km3. However, the volumes of most tuffs are difficult to estimate, because many tuffs primarily filled their source calderas and/or flowed and were deposited in paleovalleys, and thus are irregularly distributed.
Channelization and westward flow of most tuffs in paleovalleys allowed them to travel great distances, many as much as ∼250 km (original distance) to what is now the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, which was not a barrier to westward flow of ash flows at that time. At least three tuffs flowed eastward across a north-south paleodivide through central Nevada. That tuffs could flow significant distances apparently uphill raises questions about the absolute elevation of the region and the elevation, relief, and location of the paleodivide.
Calderas are equant to slightly elongate, at least 12 km in diameter, and as much as 35 km in longest dimension. Exceptional exposure of two caldera complexes that resulted from extensional faulting and tilting show that calderas subsided as much as 5 km as large piston-like blocks; caldera walls were vertical to steeply inward dipping to depths ≥4–5 km, and topographic walls formed by slumping of wall rock into the caldera were only slightly outboard (≤1 km) of structural margins.
Most calderas show abundant post-collapse magmatism expressed as resurgent intrusions, ring-fracture intrusions, or intracaldera lavas that are closely related temporally (∼0–0.5 Ma younger) to caldera formation. Granitoid intrusions, which were emplaced at paleodepths ranging from <1 to ∼7 km, are compositionally similar to both intracaldera ash-flow tuffs and post-caldera lavas. Therefore in the western Nevada volcanic field, erupted caldera-forming tuffs commonly were the upper parts of large magma chambers that retained considerable volumes of magma after tuff eruption.
Several calderas in the western Nevada volcanic field hosted large hydrothermal systems and underwent extensive hydrothermal alteration. Different types of hydrothermal systems (neutral-pH alkali-chloride and acid or low-pH magmatic-hydrothermal) may reflect proximity to (depth of) large resurgent intrusions. With the exception of the giant Round Mountain epithermal gold deposit, few known caldera-related hydrothermal systems are strongly mineralized. Major middle Cenozoic precious and base metal mineral deposits in and along the margins of the western Nevada volcanic field are mostly related to intrusive rocks that preceded caldera-forming eruptions.