Selected radiocarbon data on surficial materials from the Lahontan basin, Nevada and California, provide a chronology of lake-level variation for the past 50,000 yr. A moderate-sized lake connected three western Lahontan subbasins (the Smoke Creek-Black Rock Desert subbasin, the Pyramid Lake subbasin, and the Winnemucca Dry Lake subbasin) from about 45,000 to 16,500 yr B.P. Between 50,000 and 45,000 yr B.P., Walker Lake rose to its sill level in Adrian Valley and spilled to the Carson Desert subbasin. By 20,000 yr B.P., lake level in the western Lahontan subbasins had risen to about 1265 m above sea level, where it remained for 3500 yr. By 16,000 yr B.P., lake level in the western Lahontan subbasins had fallen to 1240 m. This recession appears synchronous with a desiccation of Walker Lake; however, whether the Walker Lake desiccation resulted from climate change or from diversion of the Walker River is not known. From about 15,000 to 13,500 yr B.P., lake level rapidly rose, so that Lake Lahontan was a single body of water by 14,000 yr B.P. The lake appears to have reached a maximum highstand altitude of 1330 m by 13,500 yr B.P., a condition that persisted until about 12,500 yr B.P., at which time lake level fell ≧100 m. No data exist that indicate the level of lakes in the various subbasins between 12,000 and 10,000 yr B.P. During the Holocene, the Lahontan basin was the site of shallow lakes, with many subbasins being the site of one or more periods of desiccation. The shape of the lake-level curve for the three western subbasins indicates that past changes in the hydrologic balance (and hence climate) of the Lahontan basin were large in magnitude and took place in a rapid step-like manner. The rapid changes in lake level are hypothesized to have resulted from changes in the mean position of the jet stream, as it was forced north or south by the changing size and shape of the continental ice sheet.