The evolutionary history of the Mexican sierras has been shaped by various geological and climatic events over the past several million years. The relative impacts of these historical events on diversification in highland taxa, however, remain largely uncertain owing to a paucity of studies on broadly-distributed montane species. We investigated the origins of genetic diversification in widely-distributed endemic alligator lizards in the genus Barisia to help develop a better understanding of the complex processes structuring biological diversity in the Mexican highlands. We estimated lineage divergence dates and the diversification rate from mitochondrial DNA sequences, and combined divergence dates with reconstructions of ancestral geographical ranges to track lineage diversification across geography through time. Based on our results, we inferred ten geographically structured, well supported mitochondrial lineages within Barisia. Diversification of a widely-distributed ancestor appears tied to the formation of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt across central Mexico during the Miocene and Pliocene. The formation of filter barriers such as major river drainages may have later subdivided lineages. The results of the present study provide additional support for the increasing number of studies that suggest Neogene events heavily impacted genetic diversification in widespread montane taxa. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 382–394.