Cognitive radio (CR) technology enables the opportunistic use of the vacant licensed frequency bands, thereby improving the spectrum utilization. However, the CR operation must not interfere with the transmissions of the licensed or primary users (PUs), and this is generally achieved by incurring a trade-off in the CR network performance. In order to evaluate this trade-off, a distributed CR routing protocol for ad hoc networks (CRP) is proposed that makes the following contributions: (i) explicit protection for PU receivers that are generally not detected during spectrum sensing, (ii) allowing multiple classes of routes based on service differentiation in CR networks, and (iii) scalable, joint route-spectrum selection. A key novelty of CRP is the mapping of spectrum selection metrics, and local PU interference observations to a packet forwarding delay over the control channel. This allows the route formation undertaken over a control channel to capture the environmental and spectrum information for all the intermediate nodes, thereby reducing the computational overhead at the destination. Results reveal the importance of formulating the routing problem from the viewpoint of safeguarding the PU communication, which is a unique feature in CR networks.