Rising at an altitude of only 742 ft (226 m) in the Valday Hills, it winds E past Rzhev and Tver, through the Rybinsk Reservoir, and past Shcherbakov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky) to Kazan, where it turns south and continues its broad, majestic course past Ulyanovsk, Samara, Saratov, and Volgograd. From Volgograd (c.300 mi/480 km upstream) the Volga River flows in a course below sea level through the Caspian lowland. The Volga enters the Caspian Sea through a wide delta below Astrakhan.
The Volga's chief tributaries are the Oka, Sura, Vetluga, Kama, and Samara rivers. The chief ports are Tver, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Volgograd, Astrakhan, Saratov, Yaroslavl, and Rybinsk. The Volga-Baltic Waterway links the Volga with the Baltic Sea and with the Baltic–White Sea Canal; the Volga-Don Canal links the Volga with the Azov and Black Seas; the Moscow Canal connects it directly with Moscow.
In its upper course the Volga traverses numerous lakes. Below Nizhny Novgorod it broadens considerably and is lined on its right (western) bank by the bluffs of the Volga Hills, which contrast sharply with the steppe that extends from the left bank. The Zhiguli Mts. cause the river to make a sharp bend (the Samara Bend), which reaches its easternmost point at Samara. The Volga is navigable from late April to late November at Shcherbakov and from early March to mid-December at Astrakhan. A tranquil, regular stream, it has a flood stage in May and June and a low-water stage in the late summer, when shoals and sandbars impede navigation.