The Waitomo Glowworm Caves, located in the King Country area of the Waikato, are one of the most popular attractions in northern New Zealand. The glowworm caves are one cave in a broader network of caves at Waitomo, which have been formed over 30 million years. People have been visiting and touring the caves for more than 100 years.
Throughout the various caves in the complex you can explore caverns, sinkholes, and underground rivers, as well as see the thousands of glowworms, which light up the darkness like stars in the sky.
Here's what you need to know about visiting the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
How to Visit
The Waitomo Caves are an extensive network of more than 300 caves. Not all are accessible to the public, and you can take guided tours through just a handful of them. Most visitors take a tour of the Glowworm Cave, the Aranui Cave (with impressive limestone formations), and the Ruakuri Cave.
Tours of the Waitomo Caves are suitable for most ages and fitness/mobility levels, as you can choose from different lengths and types of tours. You can take a short, 45-minute tour that only requires walking 600 feet or so underground; a 90-minute tour that requires walking about a mile; or more prolonged and more adventurous tours lasting three-plus hours. Most tours include a short boat ride through Glowworm Grotto. Infants are welcome on some tours (and receive free admission), but it's not recommended to take them on all tour categories.
As well as regular, relatively sedate cave tours, adventurous travelers can also try 'black-water rafting' at Waitomo. This isn't exactly the underground version of white-water rafting, as you won't be paddling through rapids. Instead, you'll crawl, swim, and float through the caves, using a rubber tube on the rivers.
Guided tours include a lot of interesting commentary on the history and geology of the caves, including Maori cultural aspects, as these caves belong to descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau, one of the first men to extensively explore the caves. Many of these descendants work at the caves as guides.
Regular cave tours run every day roughly every half-hour during normal business hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), and more frequently in the summer and at other busy times.
When traveling during peak season (generally October-March), as well as during New Zealand school holidays, it's a good idea to book a tour in advance so you can get a place on a tour at a time that suits you. You can do so through various online tour operators.
How to Get There
Waitomo is a small village in the northern King Country region of southern Waikato. It's about a three-hour drive south of Auckland, two hours west of Rotorua, or one hour south of Hamilton. Many travelers to New Zealand self-drive, but you can also take organized tours from other large towns (such as those mentioned) to Waitomo.
Tips for Visiting
The temperature in the caves is quite stable year-round, at about 53 to 57 degrees F. That means in the summer, you're likely to feel quite chilly in the caves as that's much colder than the outdoor temperatures, although in the winter you may feel pleasantly warm! Whatever the season, bring a light jacket or sweater to wear in the cave.
Although most tours (except for the more athletic and adventurous tours!) don't require getting wet, the inside of the caves is damp, and drips from the walls can make the pathways slippery. Wear shoes with a good grip, like sneakers, rather than flip flops or high heels.
Waitomo is a small town with a range of accommodation options, or you could stay in nearby Otorohanga, about a half-hour drive away.
Other Nearby Attractions
There are many beautiful natural attractions above-ground around Waitomo. Marokopa Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand and is just a short drive from the Waitomo Caves. The Mangapohue Natural Bridge Walk is a gentle but spectacular walk through a forest and moss-clad limestone gorge, during which you'll pass under a 55-foot natural arch.
If you're keen to see New Zealand's iconic kiwi bird, the Otorohanga Kiwi House—about a 30-minute drive from Waitomo—is a great place to do so. The flightless, nocturnal birds are practically impossible to see in the wild, so visiting a bird conservation park is the best way to see them.