The gating kinetics of the cGMP-activated cation channel of salamander retinal rods have been studied in excised membrane patches. Relaxations in patch current were observed after two kinds of perturbation: (i) fast jumps of cGMP concentration, generated by laser flash photolysis of a cGMP ester ("caged" cGMP), and (ii) membrane voltage jumps, which perturb activation of the channel by cGMP. In both methods the speed of activation increased with the final cGMP concentration. The results are explained by a simple kinetic model in which activation involves three sequential cGMP binding steps with bimolecular rate constants close to the diffusion-controlled limit; fully liganded channels undergo rapid open-closed transitions. Voltage perturbs activation by changing the rate constant for channel closing, which increases with hyperpolarization. Intramolecular transitions of the fully liganded channel limit the kinetics of activation at high cGMP concentrations (greater than 50 microM), whereas at physiological cGMP concentrations (less than 5 microM), the kinetics of activation are limited by the third cGMP binding step. The channel appears to be optimized for rapid responses to changes in cytoplasmic cGMP concentration.