"The Wave"

A hiker walks on a rock formation known as The Wave in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument on the Utah-Arizona border. (Brian Witte / Associated Press )

The place is among the most scenic hiking destinations in the entire Southwest, an expanse near the Arizona-Utah border so popular that officials use a lottery to decide who gets to walk its trails.

It’s known as The Wave and its signature landscape is among the most photographed in North America. But it might also be called the Devil’s Playground.

In the last month, three hikers have died here, falling prey to triple-digit summer temperatures and often-confusing landscape along the so-called Colorado Plateau and the dazzlingly colored sandstone patterns where no marked trail shows the way.

On Monday, Elisabeth Bervel, 27, of Mesa, Ariz., died of cardiac arrest after she and her husband left their two young children with relatives to hike in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument -- not far from Utah's Zion National Park -- in celebration of their fifth wedding anniversary, according to the sheriff’s office in Kane County, Utah.

Earlier this month, Ulrich and Patricia Wahli of Campbell, Calif., ages 70 and 69 respectively, were found dead near the site in 106-degree heat. And last year, a 30-year-old California man died after returning from The Wave after nightfall and falling into a canyon.

The fatalities have caused officials to reiterate warnings about the danger and isolation of the terrain.

Hikers are warned of the danger and provided pictures of prominent landmarks. There are also guides available. Still, many visitors strike out alone, making it harder to solicit others for an emergency rescue.

Officials allow only 20 hikers a day into the area, described in its website as “a gallery of gruesomely twisted sandstone, resembling deformed pillars, cones, mushrooms and other odd creations … with the unique blending of color twisted in the rock, creating a dramatic rainbow of pastel yellows, pinks and reds.”

More than 48,000 people applied last year for the 7,300 available permits, officials said. The shortage of permits means that many hike The Wave in the middle of summer.

Ten of the Wave’s 20 daily hiking permits are issued online many months ahead of time. The other 10 are issued by a lottery at the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument visitor’s center in Kanab, Utah, officials said.

Officials are now reviewing the permit system.

"It does come back to personal discretion, and making choices," Rachel Tueller, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Strip District of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which controls The Wave, told the Associated Press. "Anytime you go out on public land, it's a risk. You have to know your own capabilities."

According to the sheriff’s report reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, the Bervels “lost the trail a couple of times on the way back, which would have been during the hot part of the day by then, and spent a couple of extra hours trying to find the correct path back to their vehicle.”

The report continued: “The couple of extra hours in the heat and hiking in the sand took their toll on Elisabeth and her legs finally gave out and she could go no farther. Anthony hiked for a ways to find a cellphone signal and made a call for help.”

Kevin Wright, manager of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, could not be reached for comment.

But the Kane County Sheriff's Department said the deaths make it clear the desert can be lethal.

"This event once again demonstrates the inherent risks associated with hiking in southern Utah's desert country. Even though the Bervels had tried to make sure they were prepared for this hike, the elements proved to be stronger," the department said in a statement.

“If you must hike, it is best to do it early in the morning, and make sure you have enough water and supplies.”

[For the record, 7:34 p.m., July 24: An earlier version of this post said Kane County is located in Arizona. It is in Utah.]

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john.glionna@latimes.com