Endocytic vesicles that are involved in the vasopressin-stimulated recycling of water channels to and from the apical membrane of kidney collecting duct principal cells were isolated from rat renal papilla by differential and Percoll density gradient centrifugation. Fluorescence quenching measurements showed that the isolated vesicles maintained a high, HgCl2-sensitive water permeability, consistent with the presence of vasopressin-sensitive water channels. They did not, however, exhibit ATP-dependent luminal acidification, nor any N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive ATPase activity, properties that are characteristic of most acidic endosomal compartments. Western blotting with specific antibodies showed that the 31- and 70-kD cytoplasmically oriented subunits of the vacuolar proton pump were not detectable in these apical endosomes from the papilla, whereas they were present in endosomes prepared in parallel from the cortex. In contrast, the 56-kD subunit of the proton pump was abundant in papillary endosomes, and was localized at the apical pole of principal cells by immunocytochemistry. Finally, an antibody that recognizes the 16-kD transmembrane subunit of oat tonoplast ATPase cross-reacted with a distinct 16-kD band in cortical endosomes, but no 16-kD band was detectable in endosomes from the papilla. This antibody also recognized a 16-kD band in affinity-purified H+ ATPase preparations from bovine kidney medulla. Therefore, early endosomes derived from the apical plasma membrane of collecting duct principal cells fail to acidify because they lack functionally important subunits of a vacuolar-type proton pumping ATPase, including the 16-kD transmembrane domain that serves as the proton-conducting channel, and the 70-kD cytoplasmic subunit that contains the ATPase catalytic site. This specialized, non-acidic early endosomal compartment appears to be involved primarily in the hormonally induced recycling of water channels to and from the apical plasma membrane of vasopressin-sensitive cells in the kidney collecting duct.