The highly conserved first 23 residues of the influenza hemagglutinin HA2 subunit constitute the fusion domain, which plays a pivotal role in fusing viral and host-cell membranes. At neutral pH, this peptide adopts a tight helical hairpin wedge structure, stabilized by aliphatic hydrogen bonding and charge-dipole interactions. We demonstrate that at low pH, where the fusion process is triggered, the native peptide transiently visits activated states that are very similar to those sampled by a G8A mutant. This mutant retains a small fraction of helical hairpin conformation, in rapid equilibrium with at least two open structures. The exchange rate between the closed and open conformations of the wild-type fusion peptide is ~40 kHz, with a total open-state population of ~20%. Transitions to these activated states are likely to play a crucial role in formation of the fusion pore, an essential structure required in the final stage of membrane fusion.