The pathway of transport of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane regulator (CFTR) through the early exocytic pathway has not been examined. In contrast to most membrane proteins that are concentrated during export from the ER and therefore readily detectable at elevated levels in pre-Golgi intermediates and Golgi compartments, wild-type CFTR could not be detected in these compartments using deconvolution immunofluorescence microscopy. To determine the basis for this unusual feature, we analyzed CFTR localization using quantitative immunoelectron microscopy (IEM). We found that wild-type CFTR is present in pre-Golgi compartments and peripheral tubular elements associated with the cis and trans faces of the Golgi stack, albeit at a concentration 2-fold lower than that found in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). delta F508 CFTR, a mutant form that is not efficiently delivered to the cell surface and the most common mutation in cystic fibrosis, could also be detected at a reduced concentration in pre-Golgi intermediates and peripheral cis Golgi elements, but not in post-Golgi compartments. Our results suggest that the low level of wild-type CFTR in the Golgi region reflects a limiting step in selective recruitment by the ER export machinery, an event that is largely deficient in delta F508. We raise the possibility that novel modes of selective anterograde and retrograde traffic between the ER and the Golgi may serve to regulate CFTR function in the early secretory compartments.