The well-characterized Sierra Nevada magmatic arc offers an unparalleled opportunity to improve our understanding of continental arc magmatism, but present bedrock exposure provides an incomplete record that is dominated by Cretaceous plutons, making it challenging to decipher details of older magmatism and the dynamic interplay between plutonism and volcanism. Moreover, the forearc detrital record includes abundant zircon formed during apparent magmatic lulls, suggesting that understanding the long-term history of arc magmatism requires integrating plutonic, volcanic, and detrital records. We present trace-element geochemistry of detrital zircon grains from the Great Valley forearc basin to survey Sierra Nevadan arc magmatism through Mesozoic time. We analyzed 257 previously dated detrital zircon grains from seven sandstone samples of volcanogenic, arkosic, and mixed compositions deposited ca. 145–80 Ma along the length of the forearc basin. Detrital zircon trace-element geochemistry is largely consistent with continental arc derivation and shows similar geochemical ranges between samples, regardless of location along strike of the forearc basin, depositional age, or sandstone composition. Comparison of zircon trace-element data from the forearc, arc, and retroarc regions revealed geochemical asymmetry across the arc that was persistent through time and demonstrated that forearc and retroarc basins sampled different parts of the arc and therefore recorded different magmatic histories. In addition, we identified a minor group of Jurassic detrital zircon grains with oceanic geochemical signatures that may have provenance in the Coast Range ophiolite. Taken together, these results suggest that the forearc detrital zircon data set reveals information different from that gleaned from the arc itself and that zircon compositions can help to identify and differentiate geochemically distinct parts of continental arc systems. Our results highlight the importance of integrating multiple proxies to fully document arc magmatism, demonstrating that detrital zircon geochemical data can enhance understanding of a well-characterized arc, and these data may prove an effective means by which to survey an arc that is inaccessible and therefore poorly characterized.

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