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New Zealand is a top adventure destination famous for its stellar hiking trails, beautiful mountains, sunny beaches, and expansive farmlands. Not just impressive aboveground, there is actually a lot to do below the surface as well. Underground there is a network of caves to explore including one of our favorites: the Waitomo Caves.
We heard about the magic of the Waitomo Caves but it wasn’t until we found ourselves floating down a river in a dark underground cave marveling at the thousands of glow worms hanging above us that I really felt it.
The Waitomo Caves are about so much more than just the glow worms (although trust me, they are amazing!). You will learn about Maori history, see huge stalactite formations, and be awed by the large Cathedral Cave. Paddling through underground rivers while you explore the maze of caves in Waitomo is without a doubt one of the coolest things to do in New Zealand.
To help you plan your trip, I’ve put together 13 things you need to know before visiting the Waitomo Caves. Read on and get ready for your epic trip here!
1. About the Waitomo Caves
The Waitomo Caves are not just a simple cave that you can quickly walk through, it is a full-day, adventure-loaded experience. There is SO much to see and do at the Waitomo Caves, it’s the perfect day trip for adrenaline junkies and adventurers.
The Waitomo Caves are a network of caves, sinkholes, and underground rivers that are ready to be explored. The name Waitomo comes from the Maori language words water (wai) and hole (tomo).
The Waitomo Caves are made up of limestone rock that was formed about 30 million years ago. Tectonic shifts and volcanic eruptions have caused the limestone to lift out of the sea creating this natural wonder. Continuous water flow eventually ate away at the softer parts of the rocks allowing water inside and over time widening the channels forming the caverns we know today.
There are about 300 caves in the Waitomo region combined to make an intricate web of underground caverns. Inside the caves, you will see stalactites and stalagmites formed by water dripping down the walls and roof of the cave. These crystallized drops take hundreds, thousands, sometimes even millions of years to form and are incredibly fragile which means you are prohibited from touching them.
The Waitomo Caves experience has so much to offer both aboveground and below it. No matter your age or activity level, there is so much to do and explore. The caves are even included on many of the best multi-day guided tours of New Zealand because they are really a must-see place!
2. What are glow worms?
The main draw to the Waitomo Caves is the stunning glow worms which were first discovered in 1891 in a gold mine. There is nothing quite like seeing these impressive creatures in real life!
Together, thousands of glow worms look like stars in the night sky. There were so many, it literally lit the cave up, instantly making it one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand we’ve seen.
They glow green/blue and are predominately found in highly humid dark environments like in the Waitomo Caves. Even though they’re called worms they are actually a fungus gnat that is in their larval stage, which can last up to a year before changing form. Their scientific name is Arachnocampa Luminosa, and once they reach maturity, they hatch into a mosquito-looking insect.
In New Zealand, they are actually known as larvae (maggots), but in the Northern Hemisphere, they are considered beetles.
The strand you see hanging is what they use to catch bugs and insects inside the cave, and the light they produce attracts them!
3. Where are the Waitomo Caves?
The Waitomo Caves are located 192 km (119 miles) south of Auckland on the west side of the central North Island in an area called the King Country. The drive to the caves is a fantastic day trip from Auckland and gives you that idyllic New Zealand backdrop.
We felt like we were living inside Lord of the Rings as we wound our way through New Zealand’s stunning farmlands and rolling hills (more on this in a second). Waitomo Caves are easily one of the best places to see glow worms in NZ.
From Auckland, it took us about 2.5 hours to drive to the Waitomo Caves. We strongly suggest getting a guided tour to take you to the caves. This will let everyone ooh and awe at the scenery along the journey. Plus, then you can relax during the drive and take in the views while your guide takes care of the road.
However, if you want, you can also drive yourself to the Waitomo Caves if you’re planing to rent a car while in New Zealand. There is parking there. You can also rent a car in Auckland if you don’t have your own wheels.
Related read: If you’re heading from Auckland to the Waitomo Caves, you’ll pass right by Hamilton. Make sure to stop in and check out all the fun things to do Hamilton while you’re around here!
4. How much does it cost to visit the Waitomo Caves?
The Waitomo Caves have different costs based on what you’d like from your experience. You must join a guided tour to enter the caves, but you have a few choices when it comes to the type of tour.
This guided tour to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves takes you and a small group on a 45-minute tour through the Waitomo Caves. For $61 NZD you will start by walking through the giant caves and quickly visiting the impressive Cathedral Cave. You will then get into your boat and float through the caves and marvel at the impressive light show of the millions of glow worms. This is the cheapest and quickest tour available.
The Black Water Rafting Waitomo Cave Tour was one of our favorite ways to see the caves. Floating in an inner tube through the cave systems is one of the best ways to explore the caves and costs $170 NZD. This tour is 3 hours long and can be upgraded to a 5-hour Black Abyss tour if preferred. Both of these excursions include wetsuits, boots, helmets, and all the safety equipment you’ll need to keep you safe with a hot shower at the end.
The Raukuri Cave is the longest cave of the three and this 75-minute guided walking tour lets you explore it! It’s a great option for those not wanting to get in the water. Skipping the boat ride, a Maori guide will walk you through the cave to see stalactites, stalagmites, and the famous glow worms (yes, there are glow worms in this cave, but not as many as in the glow worm cave). We recommend booking early as this is a popular thing to do at the Waitomo Caves and costs $79 NZD.
5. What are the best tours to the Waitomo Caves?
While the tours I mentioned above will get you entrance into the caves, there is so much more to do in the area that a combo tour gives you more bang for your buck. This is especially true if you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings. At the nearby Hobbiton movie set, you’ll see the Hobbit Holes, Middle-earth, Green Dragon Inn, and the Shire – something all Lord of the Rings fans will want to check off their bucket list. Many Hobbiton tours from Auckland also stop at the caves, so you get a 2-for-1 type deal!
For a jam-packed day of amazing sights, this full-day Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton Movie Set Tour is our choice. Picking you up from your hotel in Auckland, this small group tour lasts for 11 hours and includes a Kiwi-style lunch in the $310 NZD cost. You will take a boat ride to marvel at the glow worms in the Waitomo Caves and peek inside hobbit holes from the Hobbiton movie set.
If this tour sounds good to you but you are in Rotorua, this full-day Waitomo Caves and Rotorua combo tour will be up your alley. The $334 NZD tour includes a round trip transfer from your Auckland hotel and drives you through New Zealand’s stunning countryside. You will learn some local history and see some incredible sites along the way. You will also enjoy a boat ride through the Waitomo Caves and marvel at the glow worms.
If you’re looking for the best way to get to Rotorua from Auckland but still want to see the caves along the way this Auckland to Rotorua via Waitomo Caves Tour is an ideal one-way tour for you. For $299 NZD you will be picked up from your Auckland hotel and taken past many of the North Island’s most popular attractions. You’ll do a boat tour through Waitomo Caves and after your day is done, you will be dropped off at your hotel in Rotorua.
If you’re staying in Rotorua and looking to get back to Auckland, this one-way Rotorua to Auckland Including Hobbiton and Waitomo Caves combo tour is a great option. This full-day tour costs $359 NZD and takes you on a boat ride through the Waitomo Caves where you can see the thousands of glow worms. You will drive through the stunning countryside and be immersed in the Hobbiton movie set before being dropped off at your Auckland hotel.
6. Do you need to purchase your tickets in advance?
Yes, you will want to book your tickets to visit the Waitomo Caves before you go. The Waitomo Caves are a popular destination and time slots get booked up, so it is best to book your slot ahead of time to ensure that you get the tour and the time that you want.
Keep in mind that you are not able to walk through the caves without a tour guide. The worst-case scenario is planning a trip to this area and realizing after you get to the caves that you won’t be able to go in.
7. When is the best time to visit the Waitomo Caves?
The best time to visit the Waitomo Caves is between December and March. As New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, visiting at this time will land you in the middle of their spring, and summer seasons.
This is definitely the busiest time of year to visit New Zealand, but the warmer weather will make the cool cave temperatures more bearable.
With that said, the Waitomo Caves are open all year round, and if crowds aren’t you’re thing, you might prefer visiting in the winter – just dress for it!
8. Where can you stay near the Waitomo Caves?
The Waitomo Caves are off the beaten path. We liked the option of spending the night nearby the caves. This way we could book an early morning tour so that we skipped the afternoon rush. It also gave us the option of heading to Rotorua, another popular New Zealand travel destination, in the afternoon.
Here are some of the best places to stay located not far from the Waitomo Caves:
- Waitomo Village Chalets – This is one of the top places to stay near the Waitomo Caves. A short 10-minute walk from the glow worm cave, this is a great option for those who want to get up early to be the first in the caves. I recommend booking this in advance as it can get really busy in the summer months and space becomes limited. You can choose between a private room or a dorm-style room.
- Juno Hall Backpackers Hostel – This is a great budget-friendly hostel option that has a pool – what more can you ask for? The staff are great and the location is ideal. Not far from the caves, this is a great option for those looking for affordable accommodations close to the Waitomo Caves.
- Woodlyn Park Motel – This is one of the most interesting places to stay in all of New Zealand. Each room in this hotel is unique, offering one-of-a-kind experiences. Stay in a plane cockpit, a boat, trains, and even a hobbit hole. When we go back to this area we’re definitely going to stay here – this motel is quirky and fun with comfy beds.
9. What should you bring to the Waitomo Caves?
There are a few things you should bring to the Waitomo Caves to make them more enjoyable.
- The caves hover around 12°C (54°F) to 14°C (59°F) all year round so you should pack a sweater and a waterproof jacket if you get cold easily.
- You will start your cave experience by walking around inside so we recommend comfortable shoes with good tread. A good pair of water shoes would be perfect.
- We rarely go anywhere without our day bag. It’s so nice to be able to bring a few extra things with us when we do day trips like this. We stuff things into our dry bag so we know all our important gear stays dry. This is especially important if you take a river floating tour.
- The good news is you can take photos inside the Waitomo Caves (in certain areas) so bringing your camera or phone is allowed. However, it can be very hard to capture amazing images because flash is not allowed, and the tours move rather fast (so setting up to take a slow shutter photo can be difficult.)
10. Are the Waitomo Caves claustrophobic?
The Waitomo Caves are an underground cave system and while you may be worried about experiencing claustrophobia, the caves are quite large and spacious helping to alleviate those feelings. If you have mild claustrophobia, the size of the cave should ease your concerns and the light from the glow worms helps to make it feel even bigger.
If your claustrophobia is really serious, you may be better off avoiding the caves. There’s still a ton to do aboveground in this area if you are concerned about the caves.
11. Are the Waitomo Caves suitable for children?
Yes, the Waitomo Caves are perfect for children and the whole family! Kids of all ages are welcome inside the caves. Not only will they love seeing the glow worms and the stalactites but they’ll also learn about them. The tour guides do a great job explaining the cave, the history of the cave, and the Maori culture.
This is a family-friendly activity that is fun and full of learning opportunities. The caves have staired sections that are well-lit and have railings to keep everyone safe as they explore. Depending on the age of the kids, you should choose your tour according to fitness levels. This classic tour would be my personal recommendation for families with kids.
Not only are the caves great for kids but the additional activities in the area are sure to be a hit. Many of the tours I talked about above have stops at the Hobbiton movie sets allowing kids to crawl through hobbit holes. There are also a lot of animals in the farmlands around for kids to see, too.
Unfortunately, the caves are not stroller friendly, so you would need a baby carrier instead!
Related read: If you’re traveling as a family, make sure to check out all the free and cheap things to do in Queenstown with kids!
12. Are the Waitomo Caves the best place to see glow worms in New Zealand?
After becoming obsessed with experiencing these glow worms, we toured many different caves in New Zealand to find these little guys. Without a doubt, Waitomo Caves was one of the best places to see the glow worms.
The Waitomo Caves cost money to tour, but if you’re looking for free cave experiences to see the glow worms, the Waipu Caves are a great option about 30 minutes from the city of Whangarei. With that said, you won’t see them like you do in Waitomo as you float down the cavern river at the end of the tour!
13. Are the Waitomo Caves worth visiting?
Yes! We had such a great time visiting the Waitomo Caves. The guide was knowledgeable and fun, the caves were unbelievable, and the area is lush and green. We loved that there were multiple caves in the area that offered so many activities too.
Honestly, the Waitomo Caves are very touristy, but there are just some places in New Zealand that no matter how busy, you simply must go. The Waitomo Caves is one of them! If you are planning a trip to the North Island, the Waitomo Caves are a must-see.
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Thanks for reading!
Visiting the Waitomo Caves was one of our favorite experiences in New Zealand – which is saying something because what a country! Being in a dark cave and seeing the luminescence of the glow worms was utterly surreal and nothing short of magic.
Hopefully, this guide to visiting the Waitomo Caves has helped you plan your trip. We had so much fun not only in the caves, but touring the whole area and we know you will too!