The high resolution structure of rhodopsin has greatly enhanced current understanding of G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) structure in the off-state, but the activation process remains to be clarified. We investigated molecular mechanisms of delta-opioid receptor activation without a preconceived structural hypothesis. Using random mutagenesis of the entire receptor, we identified 30 activating point mutations. Three-dimensional modeling revealed an activation path originating from the third extracellular loop and propagating through tightly packed helices III, VI and VII down to a VI-VII cytoplasmic switch. N- and C-terminal determinants also influence receptor activity. Findings for this therapeutically important receptor may apply to other GPCRs that respond to diffusible ligands.