Basin analysis and tectonic reconstructions of the Cenozoic history of the Death Valley region, California, USA, are hindered by a lack of volcanic (tuff) age control in many stratigraphic successions exposed in the Grapevine and Funeral Mountains of California, USA. Although maximum depositional ages (MDAs) interpreted from detrital zircon U-Pb data may be a promising alternative to volcanic ages, arguments remain regarding the calculation of MDAs including, but not limited to, the number of “young” grains to consider (i.e., the spectrum of dates used to calculate the MDA); which grains, if any, should be ignored; which approaches yield results that are statistically rigorous; and ultimately, which approaches result in ages that are geologically reasonable. We compare commonly used metrics of detrital zircon MDA for five sandstone samples from the Cenozoic strata exposed on Bat Mountain in the southern Funeral Mountains of California—i.e., the youngest single grain (YSG), the weighted mean of the youngest grain cluster of two or more grains at 1σ uncertainty (YC1σ(2+)) and of three or more grains at 2σ uncertainty (YC2σ(3+)), the youngest graphical peak (YPP), and the maximum likelihood age (MLA). Every sandstone sample yielded abundant Cenozoic zircon U-Pb dates that formed unimodal, near-normal age distributions that were clearly distinguishable from the next-oldest grains in each sample and showed an apparent up-section decrease in peak age. Benchmarked against published K/Ar and 40Ar/39Ar ages and five new zircon U-Pb ages of ash-fall tuffs, our analysis parallels prior studies and demonstrates that many MDA metrics—YSG, YC1σ(2+), YC2σ(3+), and YPP—drift toward unreasonably young or old values. In contrast, the maximum likelihood estimation approach and the resulting MLA metric consistently produce geologically appropriate estimates of MDA without arbitrary omission of any young (or old) zircon dates. Using the MLAs of sandstones and zircon U-Pb ages of interbedded ash-fall tuffs, we develop a new age model for the Oligocene–Miocene Amargosa Valley Formation (deposited ca. 28.5–18.5 Ma) and the Miocene Bat Mountain Formation (deposited ca. 15.5–13.5 Ma) and revise correlations to Cenozoic strata across the eastern Death Valley region.

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