New Zealand prides itself as one of the few countries in the world with an incredibly wide range of natural resources and wonderful attractions. Whether you are going from Milford Sound in the Southern Alps, to the North Island where you find the Ninety Mile Beach at the tip, the scenery is impressive and varied. One of the country’s most unique natural wonders are the famous glowworm caves.
Glowworm caves in New Zealand offer visitors the chance to explore dark caves that are lit up by thousands of tiny glowworms (scientifically known as Arachnocampa Luminosa) who shine bright as a way to attract their prey. This natural phenomenon is special, and besides one location in Australia, New Zealand is the only place in the world where glowworm caves exist!
So while you’re road tripping around New Zealand, make sure a stop at at least one of New Zealand’s glow worm caves is part of your itinerary. And if you have to pick just one place to visit, I would make it Waitomo!
Getting to Waitomo
The small town of Waitomo has become an international tourist destination, putting the community on the world map – due to the magnificent caves.
Taking a road trip to this amazing destination located in the King Country of the Waikato takes about 3 hours when driving south from Auckland. But from Hamilton, Waitomo is just over an hour drive.
Related: Our 15-Day Self Guided Best of Both Islands tour will take you right to Waitomo to explore these incredible glowworm caves!
About the Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The caves were formed over a thousand years ago by the movement of an earthquake. Since then, thousands of years of calcium deposits have formed the many stalagmites and stalactites that you see in the caves today.
Chief Tane Tinorau (a local Maori Chief) and Fred Mace (a surveyor) were the first people to explore these caves in 1887. You can imagine how enthused they were and how remarkable the feeling must have been, emerging into the famous Grotto to find thousands of glowworms sparkling with lights from the ceiling! This was where the uncovering of the cave’s system began. With more areas being discovered and explored subsequently by others as well, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves were finally opened to the public in 1889.
As the years rolled by, the caves started attracting lots of attention from locals and then international visitors. Everybody wanted their chance to explore these limestone caves and see the bioluminescent worms for themselves.
How to Explore the Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Presently, there are lots of cave tours available to choose from every single day through the many different caves in the area. Whether you decide to visit the Glowworm cave, Ruakuri cave or even all of them, one thing’s for sure – you will see plenty of glowworms.
The Glowworm Caves
The Glowworm Caves are the most popular caves to visit in Waitomo. A Glowworm Caves tour will take you on a short walk through the caves with a tour guide explaining all about the caves and the glowworms you are about to see.
The highlight of the Glowworm Caves comes after the walk when you go on a boat ride through the Glowworm Grotto. In the dark, your boat will float peacefully through the cave as you get to see more glowworms than you could ever imagine all lighting up above your head!
This tour is about an hour long and costs $53 NZD per person for an adult or $24 for a child. Tours run periodically throughout the day and you can buy your tickets from the Visitor Center.
Ruakuri Cave is another cave in Waitomo. Although it isn’t named after the glowworms, there are still plenty of glowworms to see!
The journey through the Ruakuri Cave is both investigative and educational. With a knowledgeable tour guide, you will feel like you have embarked on a time travel mission- going back 20 million years to learn about how the caves were formed below sea level and how the water flowing through them was caused by small cracks on the walls of the cavern.
Discover Waitomo offers a two-hour long walking tour through Ruakuri Cave. Along the walk, you will get to explore the cave system in depth on a longer and less crowded tour than the tour mentioned above. You are also allowed to take photographs in the Ruakuri Cave (which isn’t often allowed in glowworm caves!)
For the Adventurer…
As much as seeing glowworms is the major attraction in the town of Waitomo, you might be seeking some heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping adventure. If that’s what you want, then going on a Black Water Rafting tour might be your type of experience.
Black Water Rafting essentially is a tour where you float through the glowworm caves. It allows you to have a bit of an adventure all while enjoying the views of a starry night sky (thanks to the glowworms!)
For those who are really adventurous and bold, you can explore every depth of this amazing attraction by strapping on a harness, leaving your raft behind and heading even deeper into the darkness. The Black Abyss tour is the most intense experience of all. Imagine taking a 5-hour journey to what seems like the centre of the planet! While jumping, climbing and even flying through this ancient cavern, you will see all the limestone deposits, waterfalls and glowworms. What could be more heart-pounding than that?
Other Things to do in Waitomo
Talking only about caves when visiting Waitomo won’t do justice to all the other attractions the town has to offer. After an unforgettable underground adventure, a bit of fresh air will give you some relief. But there’s more!
Once above the ground, you can engage in other activities to keep the fun going while you relax. The Waitomo Caves Homestead is a good place to go and refuel. Grab a feta parcel, pumpkin, spinach siah and other delicious foods at this well-reputed eatery.
Another new attraction is the Waitomo trail. Officially opened in 2016, this route lets you stretch your legs while taking you through some great scenery and a showcase of what the town has to offer.
Instead of embarking on a late road trip back to Auckland, you can spend a night in Waitomo with no fear… or maybe a little. Touted as the most haunted hotel in New Zealand, the Waitomo Caves Hotel has the look you would expect of a place with that reputation. From the modern Art Deco Wing to the gothic Victorian Wing, you will certainly enjoy basking in the euphoria of the unique atmosphere engulfing this place.
The next morning you can head off to Hobbiton Movie Set. Hobbiton is only 87 kilometres from Waitomo making it an ideal next stop!
Related: Explore Hobbiton on our 19-Day Exclusive North and South Luxury Tour
Other Amazing New Zealand Glow Worm Caves
If you don’t make it to Waitomo don’t worry, there are plenty of other opportunities to see glowworms in New Zealand. Some of the other most popular places to check out glowworms include:
Charleston is a small town located on New Zealand’s South Island on the west coast. In Charleston, there are some great caves for checking out glowworms and it is always much less busy than Waitomo. There is also a very popular Black Water Rafting tour run here.
Te Anau Glowworm Caves
Te Anau is a town that is known as “the gateway to Milford Sound.” But many people don’t realise that you can also see glowworms here! A trip to the glowworm caves starts with a boat ride across Lake Te Anau before exploring the caves on the other side. It’s quite an adventure!
These glowworm caves are completely free! They are much less known than many of the other locations but no less spectacular. The Waipu Caves are located about a 2.5-hour drive from Auckland or about a 30-minute drive from Whangarei on the North Island.
Related: Our 5-Day Winterless North Private tour goes right through Waipu so you can check out these caves for yourself!
Seeing glowworms in New Zealand should be on your NZ bucket list! Let us help plan your trip of a lifetime including seeing these incredible caves. At The Road Trip, we offer both self-guided and private guided tours all over New Zealand customised to suit you – we can ensure you get the most out of a road trip in our beautiful country!