Activation of voltage-dependent calcium channels by membrane depolarization triggers a variety of key cellular responses, such as contraction in heart and smooth muscle and exocytotic secretion in endocrine and nerve cells. Modulation of calcium channel gating is believed to be the mechanism by which several neurotransmitters, hormones and therapeutic agents mediate their effects on cell function. Here we describe a novel type of voltage-dependent equilibrium between different gating patterns of dihydropyridine-sensitive (L-type) cardiac Ca2+ channels. Strong depolarizations drive the channel from its normal gating pattern into a mode of gating characterized by long openings and high open probability. The rate constants for conversions between gating modes, estimated from single channel recordings, are much slower than normal channel opening and closing rates, but the equilibrium between modes is almost as steeply voltage-dependent as channel activation and deactivation at more negative potentials. This new mechanism of voltage-dependent gating can explain previous reports of activity-dependent Ca2+ channel potentiation in cardiac and other cells and forms a potent mechanism by which Ca2+ uptake into cells could be regulated.