Volcanic rocks in the San Juan Mountains constitute the largest erosional remnant of a once nearly continuous volcanic field that extended over much of the southern Rocky Mountains and adjacent areas in Oligocene and later time. Recent regional studies have shown that the gross petrologic evolution throughout the San Juan remnant of this field was relatively simple, with initial intermediate lavas and breccias, followed closely in time by more silicic ash-flow tuffs, and ending with a bimodal association of basalt and rhyolite. More limited data from other remnants of the original field indicate a similar evolution.
In the San Juan field, voluminous early lavas and breccias—mainly alkali andesite, rhyodacite, and mafic quartz latite—were erupted from numerous scattered central volcanoes onto an eroded tectonically stable terrane. They formed mostly during the interval 35 to 30 m.y. ago, but some probably were erupted earlier and others up to several million years later.
About 30 m.y. ago, major volcanic activity changed to explosive ash-flow eruptions of quartz latite and low-silica rhyolite that persisted until about 26 m.y. ago. Source areas for the ash flows are marked by large calderas in the central and western San Juan Mountains. Two groups of lavas and associated rocks of intermediate composition intertongue with the ash-flow sequence: (1) quartz latitic lavas that were erupted in and adjacent to caldera structures and are genetically related to the ash-flow activity; and (2) other, generally more mafic lavas and related rocks that are widely distributed without evident structural relation to the ash-flow eruptive centers. The second group apparently represents a continuation of the early intermediate activity into the period of major ash-flow eruption.
In the early Miocene the character of volcanism changed notably. Whereas the Oligocene volcanics are predominantly intermediate lavas and related silicic differentiates, the younger rocks are largely a bimodal association of basalt and high-silica alkali rhyolite. Basalt and minor rhyolite were erupted intermittently through the Miocene and Pliocene, and at one time formed a widespread thin veneer over the older volcanic terrane.
The marked contrast between the Oligocene intermediate to low-silica rhyolitic magmas and the later basaltic and rhyolitic magmas implies either different conditions of magma generation or processes of differentiation for the two suites. This petrologic change coincides approximately in time with nearby development of the Rio Grande depression, a major rift that is the local expression of widespread late Cenozoic crustal extension. Whatever the cause of the petrologic change, the progression from predominantly intermediate to bimodal basalt-rhyolite volcanism, approximately concurrent with initiation of late Tertiary crustal extension, appears characteristic of Cenozoic volcanism for much of the western interior United States.