Early estimates for the cost of repairing the damaged Willard Munger State Trail between Carlton and Duluth range from $15 million to possibly as high as $40 million, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials said Tuesday.

The popular paved hiking and biking trail stretches 63 miles from Hinckley to Duluth; damage from heavy rain last month was centered on the first 15 miles out of Duluth, where about 15 "slumps," landslides and blown culverts have created gaps of up to 30 to 40 feet across. The trail is closed to the public in that area until further notice.

Martin Torgerson, area supervisor for the DNR's Division of Parks and Trails in Moose Lake, said it's hard to put a timeline on when repairs can be completed to the point of reopening the trail, which runs on a former railroad bed. But he said getting it into safe condition "by the time the snow flies" would be "wonderful."

"We want to get started on this project as soon as possible," he said along a damaged section of trail near the Buffalo House. "It's a vital link, it connects the communities here, it gets people outdoors, and it also helps the businesses along this corridor."

Complicating the damage estimates and the start of repair work, Torgerson said, is the fact that some of the slumps along the trail still are sinking. It wasn't so much flooding that damaged the trail, but rather soil, saturated by heavy rain, that started sloughing away from or onto the trail -- a process that continues two weeks after the rain ended.

Once things stop moving, Torgerson said, crews will have to move a lot of earth to either rebuild -- more solidly -- the trail bed at its original height, or lower it to a wider, more stable base.