Being able to see glow worms in New Zealand is on many tourists bucket list and after we were able to find them in Australia, I knew we just had to see them here too.
A quick google search will bring up hundreds upon hundreds of recommendations for expensive tours, adventure packages and mass group tours but did you know there are plenty of places to see glow worms in New Zealand for free.
Once you know where to look and what you’re looking for, you’ll be able to find places to see glow worms in New Zealand easily without spending a dollar on guided tours. So are you ready to find glow worms in New Zealand for free? Continue reading for all of our handy tips and favourite locations!
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Quick facts about the New Zealand Glow Worms
They’re not worms!
You might be surprised to find out that glow worms aren’t truly worms, they’re actually the larvae of fungus gnat fly that look very similar to maggots. They eventually grow into flies very similar to mosquitos and ultimately lose their glow.
They’re only found in Australia and New Zealand
That’s right. If you’ve been to Australia already and didn’t see them there, New Zealand is you’re ‘last chance’. These glow worms can only be found in New Zealand and Australia. You’ll often hear people say they’ve seen them in places like Spain and England but what they’ve seen are fire-flies and a different type of Beatle ‘glow worm’ that don’t live huge colonies like the ones in the Southern Hemisphere.
The light is a trap
The bioluminescent light that glows from their bum is used to help them catch their dinner. Living in the dark means they need a way to attract their food and their bright neon lights do just that with the aid of a silk thread ‘hook’.
They’re mostly found in caves
Dark, damp caves are where glow worms thrive. You’ll need to know this if you’re to find glow worms for free in New Zealand. They need it to be dark for their glow trap to work but it also needs to be damp so the larvae don’t dry out. You’ll often find them in caves with streams, why? Because the streams bring in fresh insects for them to feast on
December – March is prime time
Glowworms mating season is at its most active during the warmer months and because the glow comes from the larvae, you’ll see bigger colonies during this season. December to March is the best time to see glow worms in New Zealand.
One of the most beautiful places to see glow worms in New Zealand
Glowworm life cycle
Egg stage – lasts 22 days
Larval stage – lasts 9 to 12 months (this is when all the feeding occurs)
Pupal stage – lasts 12-13 days
Fly stage – lasts 2-4 days (glowworm flies cannot feed, they exist simply to mate and produce eggs to begin the next generation).
They stop glowing if the conditions aren’t right
When you’re looking for places to see glow worms in New Zealand, it’s important to keep bright lights to a minimum. If the glow worms feel like there is too much light around them, they’ll turn off their glow to preserve energy.
It’s better to use a torch that has a red light as this allows you to be able to see where you’re going but without disturbing the glow worms. It’s also thought that sudden loud sounds will make them glow brighter before they switch off, although I haven’t seen this myself.
They live in colonies
You’ll never find a lone glow worm. They live a lot longer and happier in big groups, or colonies. The glow worms in New Zealand live in much bigger colonies than the glow worms found in Australia.
Why? It’s not clear. It could be down to having fewer predators in New Zealand, it could be because Australia is a lot dryer when they need a damp habitat bus also there are many more colonies living in inaccessible caves throughout New Zealand, which helps preserve them too.
Image by Mount Tamborine glow worm caves (not one of the places to see glow worms in New Zealand)
Places to see glow worms in New Zealand for free;
Dec and I have yet to explore all of what New Zealand has to offer so for this guide to places to see glow worms in New Zealand, we enlisted the help from a few of our fellow travellers. Be sure to check out their blogs too and follow along with their adventures!
Glow Worms at Wellington Botanical Gardens
By Jub from Chur New Zealand
The Wellington Botanical Gardens are enjoyed by most during the day, but if you stay until night time, you’re in for a treat as they are one of the unexpected places to see glow worms in New Zealand. I used to live a two-minute walk from the park so we’d often go for a walk in the evening to check on them, they almost felt like our babies as not many people know about them.
You can find them by following the path from the Glen Road entrance. If you’re walking from Glen Road, they’ll be on your left. There aren’t any lights in this part of the gardens so you shouldn’t have any issues with finding them.
What I would suggest is to catch the cable car up the hill a little bit before sunset to enjoy the view overlooking Wellington. Then when it’s dark you can find the path down to the area through the gardens, or you can take the stairs from Upland Road down to Rimu Road and walk the two minutes to the Glen Road entrance from there. You’ll have had enough after 10 minutes (unless they really mesmerise you), and from there you can walk to Space Place at the top of the gardens if it’s open (book your tickets in advance).
Mangapohue Natural Bridge
By Leah from Officer Travels
The Mangapohue Natural Bridge is just a short drive away from the famous Waitomo Glow Worm cave tours, but this one’s free, often overlooked and worth arriving to just before it gets dark.
As you walk along the narrow path that winds through the centre of an old river bed if feels magical before the glow worms even begin to shine. Cross the stream via the little swing bridge and watch the gorge open up to the magnificent Mangapohue Natural Bridge that has been carved out of the gorge walks by the stream over the years.
Once the sun goes down you’ll be able to see the walls transform from rocky brown to a twinkling blue and green due to the millions of glow worms that line the walls on both sides of the gorge as well as the ceiling of Mangapohue Natural Bridge. Like the Wellington Botanical Gardens, there are no lights along this path so you’ll have to let your eyes adjust or pack a red light torch.
In the daylight, you can continue up the steps, through the natural bridge and across the field to follow the track that passes the giant fossilised oysters before looping back to the car park.
Our photo of the Glow Worms at Mangapohue Natural Bridge – One of the places to see glow worms in New Zealand for free
Hot water beach – Coromandel Peninsula
By Leah from Officer Travels
Did you know the Coromandel Peninsula has glow worms? If you visit the famous hot water beach (which you should!) and hang around until after dark you’ll notice the bushes along the track start to twinkle. The Coromandel Peninsula is a beautiful part of New Zealand’s North Island and its easy access makes it one of the most family-friendly places to see glow worms in New Zealand.
The Waipu Caves
By Alex from Discover Aotearoa
The Waipu Caves are the best free place to see glowworms in New Zealand that I’ve visited so far. They are located in Northland, on the way to the Bay of Islands.
We stayed on the DOC campsite in Ruakaka for a couple of nights and heard of the cave from the campsite warden. From the campground, they’re only about a 10 minutes’ drive, so of course, we had to see them!
An unimposing sign and parking lot told us we were at the right place. We had to cross a meadow to get to the entrance. There’s a stream inside the cave, so we took off our shoes and followed the water into the darkness.
About 50 meters into the cave, once our eyes adjusted to the dark, we were blown away by the galaxies of glowworms that surrounded us! If felt like we could just reach out and touch actual stars. The only place I’ve seen more glowworms than in Waipu Cave was in the famous Waitomo Caves.
If you’re on your way up to the Bay of Islands, do not miss visiting the Waipu Caves! Make sure you bring a good camera and a tripod to capture this moment. Also, please show common sense and switch off your torches so everyone in the cave can enjoy the glowworms.
Waipu Caves – one of the places to see glow worms in New Zealand
Okupata caves – Tongariro National Park
By Leah from Officer Travels
Yep, you read that right. Tongariro National Park is one of the many free places to see glow worms in New Zealand – who knew! They’re only a 5-minute walk from the roadside parking but the path is unmarked, a bit tricky and you’re almost guaranteed to get your feet wet here.
Following the track through the fern forest to the stream it isn’t long before you start following the stream down into the caves – so don’t attempt getting to the Okupata Caves if the water levels are high or during/after heavy rain due to flash flooding. You’ll eventually scramble to level ground and it’s from here you’ll see the magic of the Tongariro National Park glow worms.
One of our photos from one of the places to see glow worms in New Zealand
Limestone Creek – Apiti, Manawatu
By Leah from Officer Travels
If you want to check out one of the places to see glow worms in New Zealand but don’t want to stay out after dark, there is a small collection of caves at Limestone Creek, North of Apiti on the North Island, that might be perfect for you.
It requires a 600m walk through a beautiful gorge, over streams and past wild orchids to get to the main cave but once you’re there you’ll be greeted with a stunning day time display of New Zealand glow worms. Waterproof shoes are a must here as the track can get pretty wet.
The best places to see glow worms in New Zealand for free;
Glowworms in Mistletoe Bay
By Martina from The Global Curious
When I told my friend Rachael to join me on the 4th – and last- night of the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds, she was hesitant. I persuaded her by counting the many blessings awaiting at our campsite in Mistletoe Bay. There’s a beach, the site is an eco-village, there are showers…and so on.
What I didn’t say – because I didn’t know – is that we were about to encounter an ancient forest with a narrow river stream and glow worms sitting not just on the stream banks, but also near the soil by the trees’ roots surrounding the river. It was indeed a beautiful and quite unique sight!
The funny thing was, we found this opportunity just by chance. We were casually walking by the campsite’s office at night time and read a paper note stuck to the door: “Glow worms, 5 minutes that way.” Say what?!
I’d been living in New Zealand for 4 years at that time and had never seen glow worms! So, this was quite the treat – these shiny cuties can be quite elusive and hard to find in free spots, more so in the South Island!
In case you are wondering if you need to walk 4 days straight to get there, fear not! You can reach Mistletoe Bay by car from Picton in 1 hour, take a 20-minute water taxi, or walk from Anakiwa – it’s a 4-hour walk. Although there is a fee for staying overnight at the campsite, entering the forest has no cost.
It might be one of the harder to reach places to see glow worms in New Zealand but it’s an ideal day – and/or night – detour if you are exploring the South Island’s north coast or if you are planning to cross with the ferry.
View of charlotte bay – one of the place to see glow worms in New Zealand
Cliften Caves – Southland Glow Worms
By Leah from Officer Travels
The Clifton Caves are a limestone cave network that takes 1 – 2 hours to navigate. This is another adventurous route that could lead to you getting your feet wet as you walk the narrow path next to the stream towards the pool at the end. You’ll be able to see the glow worms throughout this route but be aware of the water levels – it is prone to flash flooding if there has been heavy rain.
Smiths Farm – Glow Worms in Marlborough
By Annie from Off goes Annie
Photo by Annie from her places to see glow worms in New Zealand
Velenski Track – Glow Worms at Lake Brunner
By Leah from Officer Travels
Hidden on the West Coast of the South Island is Lake Brunner, a stunning area that not too many backpackers StumbleUpon. The Velenski Track starts at Moana and is a short 20-minute stroll, a nice quick way of seeing glow worms for free while enjoying a beautiful area. If you’re heading to Greymouth, Lake Brunner is worth a stop for more than just the glow worms.
Hokitika Glow Worm Dell
By Jennifer from Backyard Travel Family
One of the best things to do in Hokitika, on the beautiful West Coast of the South Island, is to check out the free Glow Worm Dell. One of the reasons this glow worm location is so popular is that it is so easy to access. Whether you have small children or are in a wheelchair, you can go up the short hill, and within two minutes you have reached the beautiful sparkly wonderland of West Coast glowworms.
How to get here: Drive north of Hokitika on State Highway 6 (Fitzherbert Street) just over a kilometre from Hokitika Town Centre and you will see the Glow Worm Dell signposted on your right-hand side (near Richards Drive)
Photo by Laura of Hokitika Gorge – near one of the places to see glow worms in New Zealand
Things to pack when looking before heading to these places to see glow worms in New Zealand
Luckily, you don’t need very much at all to find glow worms in New Zealand – especially if you’re looking for them without a tour. Although, there are a couple of things that we found useful;
A red light
As I mentioned above, a red light torch will help you be able to see in the dark without disturbing the glow worm colonies.
Having a head torch or torch that does both red and white light will help you be able to navigate the sometimes rocky terrain to help you get to the places glow-worms hang out. Once you get closer to the caves, switch to the red light and let your eyes adjust. Better yet, turn the light off completely and enjoy watching the ‘stars’ turn on.
Some of the locations listed above can be prone to flooding or very wet conditions. These are perfect for glow worms but not so perfect for exploring. We didn’t need wellies but I know people who have so it might be worth grabbing a pair before you head out to one of our places to see glow worms in New Zealand!
A sturdy tripod
Ok, this isn’t a necessity, nor is it going to help you find glow worms in New Zealand but it is going to help you photograph them.
Having a sturdy tripod will help you get a steadier image, reducing the motion blur and allowing your camera to pick up on more light/detail in a mostly dark ‘room’. You’ll also need to pop your camera on manual and crank up that ISO, but we’ll do a more in-depth post about that soon.
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While there’s no denying the paid experiences can be fun, these free places to see glow worms in New Zealand are a great way of saving a few dollars while you’re travelling. Have you been to any of these locations already? Which one have you added to your New Zealand itinerary? Let us know in the comments below!