Photos in Strava.
First, I'd like to say that this is an incredible route. I fully enjoyed my day spent out there and would absolutely run this route again and again, just because it's so cool.
(Please take note that my GPS track is a bit off of the actual route when I was in the canyons. The tall walls and tight spaces make my watch unhappy. That being said, using a good GPX file to follow is highly recommended.)
I stayed the night at the two wheel drive trailhead so I could get an early start the next morning. The drive is is rough, but certainly doable. There is a sign near the start of the dirt road that says something like "DEEP SAND AHEAD" but never encountered any deep sand on the drive. Just a whole lot of washboards.
I started my watch at 7:23am next to the "no fire" sign. Setting off at a super easy pace, I made the decision not to blow myself up and just to enjoy the day. There were a lot of people camped along the next section of road, a result of the holidays no doubt. One large group had the pleasure of watching me almost fall on my face after tripping over a large rock.
The first Canyon that I wound my through was just an appetizer for the rest of the day. Not long after that, I came to the Y on the road. The left leads to Cottonwood Canyon, the right goes to Marble Canyon. I decided to run this route counter-clockwise because I wanted to handle the dryfall early on, and I prefer to climb up rather than downclimb.
Taking a right and slow jogging my way up the gravel "road" I came to the entrance of Marble Canyon. I loved every minute of this canyon. It has tall dark walls that are marbled with quartz in sections. I couldn't help but run my hands down both sides of the canyon as it closed in on me. The canyon was frigid as it's winter here and it doesn't see a lot of sun. My hands started going numb despite my gloves.
I made my way into Dead Horse Canyon and finally found the dryfall. I climbed up with absolutely no problem, numb/gloved hands and all. After that, the canyon became lush with grass, brush, and willows. It was in this section that I slipped and fell on icy rocks and took a little tumble.
Emerging from the canyon and still rubbing at my sore shoulder that I fell on, I took a left at the large cottonwood and started the steep climb. About halfway up the climb, I started to see snow, and by the time I was up the steepest section I was in about 3 inches of snow.
Dropping down a short ways, I ended up in a sandy wash. I started straight up the wash but quickly realized I was on the wrong track, so I backtracked a short ways and then turned and walked up a ridge until I knew exactly which wash I was supposed to be in.
The snow got deeper as I continued up the wash, which was somewhat difficult to navigate. Gaining the final ridge, I ran into a friendly backpacker, then down into the deep sand. This section gave me easy running with sweeping views. I kept seeing coyote tracks and horse tracks, which made me smile and start looking for wildlife.
As I neared Cottonwood Springs, I came upon a group of wild horses. ACTUAL WILD HORSES. And they had babies with them! They were standing right where I needed to enter the heavily vegetated area that is notoriously hard to navigate. I veered left and climbed higher in order to detour around the horses, which put me on the wrong side of the mess of vegetation. I didn't veer right because it appeared that the stallion was patrolling that side.
I tried bushwhacking back through to the right side, but kept finding myself completely blocked by vegetation and horse poop-laden water. I finally decided to go back to the left and stay high out of the bushes for a while. Eventually, I found a way across to the more navigable side of the cottonwoods. Even then, there were areas that were challenging to navigate.
I finally found the cruiser trail that I anticipated would take me all the way out of the canyon, but I ended up on the wrong side of another group of cottonwoods. After unsuccessfully trying to bushwhack my way through, I ended up backtracking and finding the trail again. I don't think that navigation would be an issue coming the opposite direction.
Cruising down on the rest of the trail, I stopped for a few minutes to warn a couple of backpackers about the crappy state of Cottonwood Spring (literally) then popped out on the gravel road for the last 8 or so miles. I ran out of food around this time, anticipating that I would be a bit quicker on this route. I suffered a bit because of it, but I was so happy and still stoked from the experiences of the day.
I definitely think I would have been 1.5 or more hours faster on this route, but the horses and the navigational errors definitely set me back. I wouldn't change this experience one bit though. Standing and watching the horses was an incredible experience, and I was blown away by the how dense the growth is in the cottonwood groves. Truly an excellent day.