Paying the $7 fee for a daily visit to a Sonoma County park is about to get easier. And finding ways to avoid coughing up the entry fees, a common practice, may be trickier to pull off.

Sonoma County Regional Parks is installing new electronic pay stations to replace the old-fashioned envelopes and wooden collection boxes of the past. The solar-powered stations accept credit and debit cards, in addition to $1 and $5 bills, in the aim of making it easier for park visitors who don't have exact change.

"By putting in these electronic machines we're making the parks more modern," said Meda Freeman, spokeswoman for Sonoma County Regional Parks. "We hope that by making that easier it will mean more people are paying for day fees, and it will free up park rangers who won't have to spend as much time collecting the envelopes."

Crane Creek Regional Park in Rohnert Park, a popular destination for frisbee golf players, was among the first parks to have the option.

"It's great, because I didn't have perfect change," said Brent Hermsmeyer, 32, a landscape supply salesman from Cotati who showed up at the park with an easel to paint, and paid the fee with his credit card. "It's a nice place, and I'd love to keep coming here, so if that's what it takes, I'm willing to do it."

The machines don't accept coins or bills in denominations greater than $5, or offer change if a visitor overpays, but that need is reduced by the option to pay with Visa, MasterCard or Discover Card.

"We're working with VenTek (the vendor) to hopefully have an option to at least give people a credit if they put in more than the exact change," Freeman said. "And we're hoping to have the ability to upgrade to a park membership."

The machines have been installed in Helen Putnam, Maxwell Farms, Sonoma Valley, Riverfront and Sunset Beach Regional Parks. Over the next month they will be installed at Spring Lake, Ragle Ranch, Steelhead Beach, Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach, Gualala Point and Westside Regional parks.

"It's perfect. It was a lot easier than I thought," said John Brusoe, 27, a student at Sonoma State University.

Marcus Garcia, 29, a Sonoma resident who works in construction, was less successful in his first attempt to pay with a credit card, and gave up after trying two different cards that the machine couldn't read.

"It's a good idea. I didn't see anything wrong with the old system, though," Garcia said. "I guess the older system was easier to cheat in a way."

Some drivers kept a variety of color-coded envelopes in an attempt to fool rangers, he said. Others used to park at pull-offs on Roberts Road near Crane Creek, said said Adam Basler, 35, a special education teacher who lives in Cotati.

"There were a couple of ticket binges that went on, so people wised up," Basler said. "It's good to see a government agency doing good."

(You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or