Although Basin and Range–style extension affected large areas of western Mexico after the Late Eocene, most consider that extension in the Gulf of California region began as subduction waned and ended ca. 14–12.5 Ma. A general consensus also exists in considering Early and Middle Miocene volcanism of the Sierra Madre Occidental and Comondú Group as subduction related, whereas volcanism after ca. 12.5 Ma is extension related. Here we present a new regional geologic study of the eastern Gulf of California margin in the states of Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico, backed by 43 new Ar-Ar and U-Pb mineral ages, and geochemical data that document an earlier widespread phase of extension. This extension across the southern and central Gulf Extensional Province began between Late Oligocene and Early Miocene time, but was focused in the region of the future Gulf of California in the Middle Miocene. Late Oligocene to Early Miocene rocks across northern Nayarit and southern Sinaloa were affected by major approximately north-south– to north-northwest–striking normal faults prior to ca. 21 Ma. Between ca. 21 and 11 Ma, a system of north-northwest–south-southeast high-angle extensional faults continued extending the southwestern side of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Rhyolitic domes, shallow intrusive bodies, and lesser basalts were emplaced along this extensional belt at 20–17 Ma. Rhyolitic rocks, in particular the domes and lavas, often show strong antecrystic inheritance but only a few Mesozoic or older xenocrysts, suggesting silicic magma generation in the mid-upper crust triggered by an extension-induced basaltic influx. In northern Sinaloa, large grabens were occupied by huge volcanic dome complexes ca. 21–17 Ma and filled by continental sediments with interlayered basalts dated as 15–14 Ma, a stratigraphy and timing very similar to those found in central Sonora (northeastern Gulf of California margin). Early to Middle Miocene volcanism occurred thus in rift basins, and was likely associated with decompression melting of upper mantle (inducing crustal partial melting) rather than with fluxing by fluids from the young and slow subducting microplates. Along the eastern side of the Gulf of California coast, from Farallón de San Ignacio island offshore Los Mochis, Sinaloa, to San Blas, Nayarit, a strike distance of >700 km, flat-lying basaltic lavas dated as ca. 11.5–10 Ma are exposed just above the present sea level. Here crustal thickness is almost half that in the unextended core of the adjacent Sierra Madre Occidental, implying significant lithosphere stretching before ca. 11 Ma. This mafic pulse, with subdued Nb-Ta negative spikes, may be related to the detachment of the lower part of the subducted slab, allowing an upward asthenospheric flow into an upper mantle previously modified by fluid fluxes related to past subduction. Widespread eruption of very uniform oceanic island basalt–like lavas occurred by the late Pliocene and Pleistocene, only 20 m.y. after the onset of rifting and ∼9 m.y. after the end of subduction, implying that preexisting subduction-modified mantle had now become isolated from melt source regions. Our study shows that rifting across the southern-central Gulf Extensional Province began much earlier than the Late Miocene and provided a fundamental control on the style and composition of volcanism from at least 30 Ma. We envision a sustained period of lithospheric stretching and magmatism during which the pace and breadth of extension changed ca. 20–18 Ma to be narrower, and again after ca. 12.5 Ma, when the kinematics of rifting became more oblique.